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Big Chuck

June 21, 2010

I Was Just Thinking: Hitting milestone helps remember parts of journey

I hit a bit of a personal milestone last week. I spoke at my 50th New York state historical society meeting. I have been on a whirlwind book tour speaking about my Upstate books since 2008, and last week the counter clicked past No. 50.

I have spoken in old restored firehouses (Stamford), historic homes (Herman Melville's home in Lansingburg), one-room schoolhouses (Kings Ferry), restored train depots (Oxford), old churches (Fabius), grand old Victorian homes (East Rochester), restored village halls (Dryden) and ancient Grange Halls (Fly Creek). And yes, even a nostalgic 1930s ice cream parlor (Oneonta).

The venues are half the fun of "going on the road."

No. 50 came when I spoke in Pleasant Valley (Town of Andes). The tiny little church that I ended up in sits proudly along state Route 1 at the water's edge of the Pepacton Reservoir. It is kind of a memorial in a way. A stone's throw away is the behemoth water supply for New York City.

In the late 1940s, a lot of big checks were offered to a lot of very poor people, and most jumped at the chance to "make way." Some didn't. When all was said and done, the villages of Arena, Pepacton, Shavertown and Union Grove were drowned by 140 billion gallons of Catskill river water. And 974 hearts were forever broken.

The lovely Pleasant Valley Church is the last building left standing before you hit the reservoir.

Jim Andrews, an officer with the Andes Historic Society, told me, "We were lucky to find this building for our society. It fits our mission perfectly. It was inexpensive, but it did need work, for sure. But with the help of Frank Furlan and his boys out of Milford (historic renovation specialists), we were able to make this place shine once again."

And shine it does. Seventy people can sit in the original oaken pews. The stained glass is intact, the old light fixtures give the place a Thomas Kinkaid glow, and there is a 100-year-old organ "which came with the building," according to Andrews. And it is now in the hands of the caring folks of the Andes Historical Society. This little chapel could not have found a safer harbor to berth in for the next century or so.

The other great treat for me when I travel all over upstate New York for my speaking engagements is meeting all the great, colorful characters that make our region so lively.

Six miles out of Andes on state Route 1, I came upon a classic 1950s-era one-pump gas station. The sign read "Tremperskill General Store." I didn't even know there was a place called Tremperskill, let alone that I was actually in Tremperskill. I had to go inside.

"Hello, may I help you?"

The speaker was Sonny Somelofski. I asked about his place.

"See that fish over there?" he said. He pointed to a giant alien-fish hanging from the wall. "My dad (who bought this country store decades ago) caught that monster back on April 29, 1994. It is in the record books as the largest New York state inland water brown trout ever seen." Well, it was some fish, no doubt about it. All 22 pounds, 38 inches of him. "Yes sir, they are still talking about that one," Sonny said with a laugh.

This old place really had some country charm to it, from the homemade family sauces and dressings to the original 1941 Coke cooler. I asked Sonny for his favorite story after all these years by the side of the road.

His mother, Delores, chirped up, "Tell him about Mr. Anderson."

"Well," he began, "Sen. Warren Anderson from Binghamton and his wife were regulars here. Back in the late 1970s there was this big gas crisis, and nobody had any gasoline. One day his wife, Ruth, pulled in in her big Lincoln (with the license plate reading "NYS 1") to get gas. I said, 'I am sorry, Mrs. Anderson, but we are out of gasoline.'

"Apparently she told her husband about this.

"The very next day I got a phone call from James Larocca, the NYS Commissioner of Energy. He asked me if it was true that I had no gas in my pumps. And I said yes.'

"Well, lo and behold, the next day in rolls this big, old gasoline truck filled and ready to top off my tanks. I was shocked.

"I went out to greet the driver and said, 'What are you doing here?'

"He said, 'Stand back, buddy, I'm here to fill up your tanks. And by the way,' he said, with an incredulous look on his face, 'If I may ask, who the heck do you know in Albany, anyhow?'"

Sonny and Delores let out rollicking laughs at the retelling of this dog-eared yet endearing tale.

"Yup, Mr. Anderson. He was quite a guy."

I'll catch you in two.

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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